Note: This essay was originally published in Paper Darts
You are ten years old when you buy your first training bras. They come in five-packs at TJ Maxx, and your mother sighs when you plop them into the red basket. The bras are pink and decorated with flowers, something that would normally satisfy you, but the pink is just not the right shade. You buy them anyway and wear one to school on Monday.
You are twelve years old when you are told that no one wears training bras anymore. The other girls in the locker room bump chests and laugh while showing off their brand-new underwire bras. You are going to say that your breasts are too small for a real bra anyway, but your friend with excited blue eyes tells you about AA cups. You say nothing and the next morning look at your tiny breasts with judging eyes. You hate the way your nipples come through your shirt like swollen bee-sting skin. On Sunday you ask your mother for a real bra, saying, Mommy, I’m a woman. But you’re not. Your mother smiles with sad eyes and, with a cool palm around your shoulder, asks if you want to watch the next Harry Potter movie. You forget the subject and cuddle up in her bed and watch a pasty-faced thirteen-year-old Daniel Radcliffe throw sticks at middle-aged men. You wonder what J. K. Rowling has against middle-aged men.
You are fourteen years old when your blonde friend with B-cup breasts takes you to Victoria’s Secret. Your mother has warned you about this temple of teenage plastic before, condemned and condescended the place of pink and feathers with her words. You go anyway, try on six pairs in the hot pink, polka-dot mirror. You buy two because there’s a “crazy” deal. Your friend smiles when you swipe your mother’s credit card through the slate-gray slot. You feel guilty—that is, until you go home and smile at the two perfect spheres staring back at you from underneath the film of your ivory T-shirt. This is good, you think.
You are sixteen years old when your arsenal of underwear is penetrated once more by bralettes and cotton lace instead of underwire. You are shopping with your mother again, but her ideas ring in your ears with the same inflection as the Surgeon General’s underage drinking warning. Despite this, you recognize how good the soft cotton feels on your skin. It is no longer a requirement but a suggestion, not a belt buckle across your chest but the sensitive whisper of sterile gauze. This is better.
You are seventeen years old when you meet her. She has the same build and breasts as you, but she is dusted in blonde California breeze. She doesn’t wear any bras but spends her money on thrift store button-down shirts and bags of sativa and beer. She is dancing and you are thinking, watching her. In your seersucker summer dress that hugs your hips, the unseemly back clasp of your bra peeks out between the folds.
You are sitting in the sun, seeping in the hot summer air, when you decide to go back to your dorm. You take your bra off and your body breathes again. Two weeks later and you are dancing in New York City grass, bra-less, with your arms swimming through the sunny leaves. You think you have found a healthy way to weave the three pieces of fabric into your life. You wear the belt buckle of an underwire bra only when necessary. You think you’ve got it all figured out. The air from the ground kisses your shoulder blades and everything tastes like summer. My favorite, you think. Suddenly, the pink isn’t off and the belt buckle is gone and you are sleeping in a blanket of balance. You think everything is the way it should be, think this is the way things will stay. But things are never exactly how you want them.
You think back to late August: You are planning to go to a shirtless parade that starts in Columbus Circle because you want to be free underneath the weight of words like "Brown Sugar," but you are scared. All you can think of are the middle-aged men who might follow you home. I get it, J. K. Rowling.
And that’s when you realize, realize that your mom sighed from behind the driver’s seat and handed you a underwire belt buckle because she knows that the concept of cotton gauze is an idealism. Because now you are learning that you can’t drive underneath pantsuits and silk blouses without your belt buckle. Because you think that you are safe, safe, safe until one day you are rear-ended, thrown off the highway, flipped off a cliff by a middle-aged man and by the simple statement: My eyes are up here.
It is October, and fall has set in. You are getting dressed, squirming your way into a pair of tight-fitting blue jeans. Your hair is down and you open your underwear drawer. You reach down, decide to go with the comfortable cotton gauze. It’s okay, you say. The sweater’s super thick anyway. You look in the mirror and wonder why you bought that bra in the first place.
It's a summer bra. I’ll wear it again when it gets warm.
But you were never good at keeping promises to yourself, were you?